Thousands of twinkling lights adorn pretty much every street corner one stumbles across in Sweden these days.
Christmas markets have set up their stalls and are in full swing, selling sweet-smelling mulled wine called glögg, not-so-sweet festive buns called Lussekatter, and odd-looking Jultomte figurines that look more like the American band, ZZ Top.
But don’t be fooled by these outward displays quite yet.
Though visitors to Sweden around this time might be confused by such seemingly festive displays, only true residents know exactly when the holiday spirit grips them, and here are five sure-fire ways to know beyond decorative sparkling lights.
The unveiling of 2,000 different brands of pepparkakor
Forget glögg. While its sweet smell might give the illusion that Christmas is just around the corner, a truer sign is the unveiling of those gingerbread cookies that complement glögg so well – pepparkakor.
Let’s be honest, Swedish grocery stores aren’t known for offering a wide selection of brands beyond domestic Findus and Felix.
However, starting sometime in late November, the country’s well hidden competitive capitalist side is unleashed when it comes to these sugary ginger snaps.
So many brands of pepparkakor hit store shelves that many in this country, not exactly known for shoot-by-the-hip decision-making, are left paralyzed trying to decide which brand to buy.
“Should I grab the heart-shaped ones? What about the ones with butter (smör)? The heart-shaped ones with butter? Okay, is this heart-shaped brand better than the other 20?”
Twinkling stars and the illusion of warmth
We’ve all seen seen those large twinkling stars hanging in windows. They make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside and bring a smile to your face.
Oftentimes, those stars are replaced by electric advent candelabras that even Swedes with no religious affiliation whatsoever still display proudly in their windowsills.
Don’t misconstrue this symbolism with openness and warmth. I dare you to knock on the door of that cozy-looking inviting home. Chances are no one’s going to invite you in for glögg and pepparkakor if they don’t know you, despite the generous feeling hanging in the air which Christmas brings.
“Here come the men (and women) in black”
In spite of those gold, red, and green lights brightening up the city, the spirit hasn’t really gripped Swedes yet until they start stepping out in their holiday best -all black.
Black hats, black coats, black gloves, black boots – you get the picture.
You won’t find those tacky Christmas-themed and seasonal-patterned sweaters that are so popular across the pond here; at least not proudly worn in public.
There is one exception though, and that’s on December 13th when it’s okay to step out in all white. On this day, you’ll find teenagers and kids – mostly girls – running around town in white gowns and a crown of lit candles on their heads in celebration of St. Lucia Day.
This traditional procession in Sweden dedicated to the Sicilian Christian martyr Saint Lucy from AD 310, dates back to the 1920s in Stockholm when a newspaper elected an official “Lucia” to represent the saint.
After December 13th, residents are back to wearing all black.
Fashioned after the 16th century Spanish tradition of lighting bonfires along roads which led people to midnight mass, the lighting of luminarias – candles placed in sand-filled brown bags – has taken on a whole new meaning around the world.
These lights are now used more for holiday decorations, and many of those brown paper bags have been replaced by sturdier fire-proof systems.
In Sweden, you’ll find these strategically little luminarias in the form of hockey puck-looking light sources lining sidewalks all over towns and cities, not necessarily leading you to mass, but rather to some storefront decorated for the holidays.
Considering it’s already pitch-black by 3pm, these makeshift human runway lights help you avoid dog poop and slippery black ice while guiding you directly into the store to spend your holiday kronor.
One word – “Väderkaos!”
Or rather, winter variations on the word “kaos” which means “chaos” and is pronounced “cows”.
So you get all sorts of sensational newspaper headlines about the weather with any of the following: “Snökaos! (snow chaos)”, “Stormkaos! (storm chaos)”, “Iskaos! (ice chaos)”, “Vägkaos! (road chaos)”, even the redundant “Panik-kaos! (panic chaos),” and similar titles.
If it hasn’t snowed yet, then the winter holidays haven’t truly arrived in Sweden.
Yet when it does snow, there’s a level of man-made panic that ensues around its arrival. Even if the first snow of the season comes as predicted by meteorologists, it always comes as the surprise of the year for Stockholmers who can’t believe that snow actually falls in Sweden.
In a Nordic country that has survived thousands of years of unbelievably challenging weather conditions, you’d think we’d be over it by now.